Starting with the First Gulf War leading up to the invasion of 2003, the issues that emerged during the period of American military engagement in Iraq are still very much concerns we are dealing with today: xenophobia, oil dependency and the spectacle of violence. But for many Americans, the Iraq War is a recent but distant memory—one that’s been out of sight, out of mind. And just when you’re about to forget, you’re reminded that it’s never really left our collective conscience. Especially for more than 50 of the Iraqi artists participating in MoMA PS1’s coming group exhibition this fall, “Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991-2011.” The war may have ended but the conversation has long been ongoing, and will be having a historic moment in contemporary art history this November.
The show, which will put on view 100 works by artists based in the Middle East and its diasporas in tandem with artists responding from the west (such as German filmmaker Harun Farocki and American artist Paul Chan) will examine the pivotal timeline of warfare, sanctions, present day foreign policies and their consequences.
For MoMA PS1 chief curator Peter Eleey and co-curator Ruba Katrib, the idea came from investigating concerns that frequently circulate in our current day—ISIS, media sensationalism, global warming—but that connect back to the time of the Gulf Wars, events that have seemingly been relegated to the past.
“Memory is short,” Ruba Katrib told Observer. “Many things seem unfamiliar or far away and we’re putting together a very recent history. It’s important to look back at this time and analyze where we were in relation to that time, how a lot of these events, ideas and conflicts keep reoccurring and how they affect artists and communities that dissolved or have spread around the world. It’s a way to understand the present moment without directly referring to the present moment.”
Featuring work from artists like Afifa Aleiby, Dia Azzawi, Thuraya Al Baqsami, Nuha al-Radi, Ala Younis and feminist activists Guerrilla Girls, the selection of artists for “Theater of Operations” emerged from the curators following communities of artists who were active between 1991 and 2011, both near the Gulf as well as in the diaspora communities abroad. Though a network of active Iraqi artists does exist to a certain degree, tracking down work was not without its challenges, according to Eleey.
“It’s important to us to start crafting a certain art history of this time period that puts these different populations and communities of artists in dialogue with one another,” said Eleey. “We think a lot about how we can integrate global art practices into a Western narrative but we forget that our narratives are born of tension and conflict. Too many artists in those regions are under-contextualized in the west. We hope this opportunity will not only let us reconsider the way we look at art from Iraq but across the world.”
Against the fast paced, amnesia-inducing pulse of the 24-hour news cycle, the exhibition will offer a sobering pause into the world of artists raised alongside American-led wars and conflict. The show will be on view from November 3, 2019, to February 2020.